Students, faculty and other community members gathered in the Vandenberg Room of the Michigan League to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the establishment of the Native American Student Association (NASA) at the University of Michigan Sunday.
Rackham student Jaime Fuentes, NASA co-secretary, began the event with a land acknowledgment, saying it is important to remember the University’s history with Native American communities. The University is located on the territory of the Anishinaabek people. The acknowledgment affirms the contemporary and ancestral Anishinaabek ties to the land, the profound contributions of Native Americans to the University and the University’s commitment to educating children of Native ancestors.
NASA was established during the rise of U-M student activist movements in the 1970s, in which students fought for the University to expand Native American Studies programs. In the past 50 years, NASA has co-sponsored multiple events with the Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs (MESA) to raise awareness for missing Indigenous women and native food sovereignty. The organization is also involved in hosting the annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Skyline High School.
In honor of NASA’s history, Fuentes passed the microphone around the room and called upon guests to share personal stories.
Bethany Hughes, assistant professor of American Culture in the Native American Studies Program, spoke to the crowd about a 1972 lawsuit filed by students against the University for not fulfilling their treaty obligations. She also noted the significance of an incident in 1975, when Native American students and the Black Action Movement created a list of demands for equitable educational outcomes at the University.
“Fifty years ago, there were students on this campus doing amazing things, and involved in all of the big questions, the big needs and big movements in the Native American culture and community,” Hughes said. “That is not different today. NASA has outlived Michigamua, thanks to some people in this room today.”
Michigamua, which became known as the Order of Angell, was a controversial secret society for seniors at the University, founded in 1902. Prior to being officially disbanded in March 2021, the Order was frequently criticized for its elitist behavior and past appropriation of Native American culture.
In 2000, native artifacts were discovered in their meeting space in the Michigan Union. After demonstrators from the Students of Color Coalition (SCC) occupied the Union for 37 days, the University banned Michigamua from using the Michigan Union. The Order agreed to return Native artifacts to respective tribes following the community-wide backlash. In 2007, the University reinstated the group after losing distinction in 2000, and was renamed to the Order of Angell.
Alyx Cadotte, NASA and committee powwow alum, shared stories of her personal experience with the University’s negligence towards Native American students. She also discussed the 2008 Crisler Arena Powwow at which thousands of Native people and their supporters protested for the University to return ancestral remains to the Native communities that they belonged to.
“We printed signs for every group of family remains and printed where they were found and how many of them,” Cadotte said. “Then we blocked off seats all around Crisler to really bring home the most visible moment the Native community has on campus, the sheer amount of our people that they were holding. That there were more Native people ever named than have ever been to school here.”
Cadotte said she often struggled with the fact that she graduated from a university that she said ignored the grievances expressed by her and other Native students.
Cadotte told The Daily after the event that since she graduated, she thought the University has made progress, which she attributed to student activism.
“I think they’ve made huge strides with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA),” Cadotte said. “When I was a student, they were barely even acknowledging that they had our ancestors and items on campus, let alone making efforts to connect with the communities where they came from and repatriate them when possible.”
Social Work professor Abigail H. Eiler said NASA was always a welcoming place for her when she was a student. She discussed what Sunday’s event means for the Native community on campus and how the U-M community at large can support NASA’s long-term efforts.
“Our teachings are things that connect us to each other, the community and the generations before us,” Eiler said. “Grace Lee Boggs once said to me, ‘What is your purpose? What is your passion and how will you lead?’ The second thing is we need to know the history. The third thing is we need to be ready, willing and able to step forward into something when we see something is wrong. That’s going to help change society long term.”
Eiler said she is excited to witness the influence NASA has on current and future students, particularly regarding increasing Native American student enrollment.
“I think when you look around the room and you see all these students, alumni and faculty, we have an opportunity to increase native enrollment through our efforts and through the support of the institution. And so that’s my hope,” Eiler said.
LSA sophomore Payton Roy said she was happy with the turnout and to be able to hear the experiences of NASA alumni. She also discussed the current efforts that NASA is implementing.
“Right now, we’re still participating in activism for certain issues like ‘Water Is Life,’ missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls,” Roy said. “We’re really just trying to spread the word that Native Americans are still very present and prominent on this campus. And that they’re pretty much everywhere you go and we’re a welcoming community.”
LSA junior Solomon Milner, NASA co-chair, expressed gratitude for their Native American ancestors in an interview with The Daily.
“I just want to say thank you to all Native students who have come before me, to the Native students who were here before NASA even existed,” Milner said. “To my ancestors who fought for our education, for the Treaty of Fort Meigs. For my ancestors who fought for me to exist, period. Just want to say chi miigwech. Thank you very much.”
Daily Contributor Maleny Crespo can be reached at email@example.com.